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I had a blast discussing this with Fr. Guy de Gaynesford, rector, School of the Annunciation, Buckfast Abbey…
Your Worst Nightmares
Might it be that some dark trends in popular culture are the manifestations of the inherent human need to grapple with the Four Last Things? Where the Church squarely faces up to the realities of death, judgment, heaven and hell, post-modern man faces a vacuum of unbelief in the very realities that most demand his attention. The rational, materialist mind – reduced as it is in power to bear the tension this produces – has one escape route left to him.
Art has a kind of power to resolve seemingly impossible tensions – at its best resulting in a newly realized response to encounter with reality, and at its worst coughing up some deformed attempt to avoid it. Perhaps the recurring, disturbing, themes in popular books and movies are the last gasps of creative responsiveness in humanity increasingly untethered to reality.
Take a look at the nightmares expressed in pop culture, from this perspective:
Death is a formidable reality that, surely, is hard for those without faith in God to bear. Perhaps if we could make the undead hideously repulsive, our mortality would be more attractive. A rollicking fight to the death against beings who are unequivocally ‘bad’ is as good as it gets…all guts and no glory of the human person to worry about as you whack ‘em. In zombie warfare we get a chance to vent all the pent up adrenaline caused by the unacknowledged fear of death we’ve been carrying around. We can actually embrace the possibility of death as a sort of counterpoint to the ugly, mindless, boring lives we perceive everyone around us living. ‘They’ are all walking dead, and ‘we’ are the ones ‘really living it up’ with zest and fearlessness.
For you, zombie straw men. For me full personhood as I die to self in Christ.
Death is threatening, but you’d think the prospect of eternal life shouldn’t frighten anyone. Think again. Eternity looms as an abyss for those whose life is already fairly empty, boring, pointless, lonely, painful or depressing. Heaven is a fantasy, and besides that, wouldn’t be very entertaining as it’s merely endless choral music, thumb twiddling and prudery. What shall we do to resolve the fear that we may have immortal souls?
At all costs, if we must live forever, we must stay young, attractive, sexually fulfilled and rich to make it tenable. Enter the vampire: our alter-ego if we identify with his suave erudition and smouldering power; our super-ego if we prefer to be the one he seduces. Whether you’re the vampire, or his ravished lover, all pre-requisites for a bearable eternity are met in this inversion of new life in Christ, whose own blood restores life to and purifies the soul who rests in Him.
For you, the same night life forever. For me, the endless newness of life in the Son’s light.
Memo to unbelievers: demons and evil people exist, and you know it. But nothing in your philosophy helps you deal with those awful realities from the pit of hell. Reject them with a smirk, and still you’ll feel the dread of them oozing up from time to time. Keep pushing your fear down and your subconscious becomes a fertile ground for some vivid imaginations you can’t quite control. What to do?
Make a movie of them. Your compatriots, who want help explaining where their own horrible imaginings originate, will come watch it. That little thrill you get when the psycho-sexual, demonic violence plays on the screen (of your mind, or your theater) helps you believe you’re actually in control. You’re choosing to be a spectator and this is all make-believe. Right? There’s nothing evil threatening you, or influencing you, or drawing you to crave more and more horrific, explicit violence in exchange for the pleasure. More important, there’s nothing in you that corresponds to evil, that resonates with perversion and demonic rage…no bloodlust…no vulnerability to oppression or possession…nothing hellish is real. Right?
For you the thrill of make-believe evil. For me, a Savior to vanquish all-too-real evil.
Magic Gone Awry
Here I include technology as a form of magic – manipulation of the material universe with a view to obtaining amazing power over it. Many plots turn magic, technology, man’s creations and his own karma against him. Thus does he face judgement for his pride and his deeds – in this-worldly terms that carefully balance the scale of retribution for him through his own efforts. Somewhere in the depths of man is the awareness that he’s going to get what he deserves. Since there is no God to make that call, he fends off that possibility by gently judging and forgiving himself.
His own creations – clones, robots, computers, dinosaurs – might turn on him. (He will need to realize he’s created the problem, but will be suitably chastened by the challenge of dealing with it.) Or, he might get a high-tech revenge on someone who deserves it. (Revenge – justified violence – is like a backfire that puts out a wildfire. There’s no worry about being judged while you’re indulging in self-righteous mayhem.) The natural world he has exploited, ignored, accidentally radiated, or destroyed might rise up against him. (Of course, he’ll win the battle to subdue it, and be absolved by the harrowing ordeal.)
Movies like these can be cautionary tales, I suppose, but perhaps numb the soul a bit to the reality of a judgment that can’t be paid off with effort, or pain, or victim status.
For you, only natural consequences and high-tech restoration of your control over reality. For me, personal judgement and supernatural means – the atoning death on the Cross – to provide reconciliation with the Creator.
Well, that’s the end of these reflections on modern art and the work of the imagination…I wonder what you think of it all….
Fr. Giussani tells us that “Freedom is the correspondence to reality, in the totality of its factors.” For some, bondage to a nightmare of unreality. For me, the surpassing reality of knowing Our Lord Jesus Christ.
Monteen, from the French for ‘mountain’. That’s my mom – a tower of strength to all who knew her, but barely over five feet tall. Her mother shaped her life much differently than she, in her turn, shaped the lives of two daughters. A dark, and mentally unstable woman with a brooding, sometimes violent ill will toward Monteen, Grandmother was no model of nurture and compassion. Yet, my mother dedicated her life to understanding and helping the mentally ill. Instead of hardening her heart, she was moved to give the kind of help her mother had so desperately needed.
Supported by a deeply loving father, she poured herself into her studies and then into her work. She gave herself to patients and to students with remarkable energy and effectiveness. It often took great courage for this little mountain to stand up to violent patients with psychotic strength: drug addicts threatening to kill the next person who walked into the room; confused and deluded people who might take a nurse for a hated enemy, or an attempt to help as a threat against their lives. Even to go to work sometimes was to take risks on their behalf in gang-infested, high crime neighborhoods.
But who would there be to bring help to such needy ones if not for those, like her, with servant hearts, a sense of the dignity and worth of those so difficult to love, and a vision of hope for their wholeness? Such people as my mother follow the example of Christ, who brought light into the darkness and set captives free.
Until her death, she continued her ministry of shedding the light of understanding on the problems people face in difficult relationships and in the challenges of aging. Always teaching, part of her mandate from heaven must certainly have been to multiply herself and the value of her experience a thousand-fold. She took her message, “Don’t be afraid to get well!” seriously – allowing God to cleanse and heal her own deep wounds, and becoming over the years more and more beautiful to all those who loved her.
Monteen took, as her life’s promise, the Scripture verse Romans 8:28 : “We know that all things work together for good for those who love Him, who are called according to His purpose. (NRSV)” By the time she died, she still was no saint, but she left me and my children a beautiful example of courage and faith in the face of death. Even in death, she’s a ‘little mountain’ to me now, giving me courage to “Take a risk!” and “Give it all you’ve got.”
Happy Mother’s Day to all the little mountains in all the families I love!